Just the other day I found myself falling down a rabbit hole of endangered and extinct birds. As someone who loves birds, it pains my heart to know the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō is now presumed extinct after what was believed to be the very last survivor was heard in 1987. I can’t even imagine being the last of a kind. This happens with cars, too. The Peugeot 309 sold over 1.6 million units over its run, but populations have dwindled. And while I wouldn’t call 309s rare, that term absolutely applies to the hopped-up 309 GTi 16. This was a practical hot hatch living in the shadow of the far more popular 205 GTi even though the 309 GTi 16 was arguably the better choice. Now, depending on where you live, there are fewer than 100 of them on the road.
Last time on Holy Grails, we took a look at the Honda CBR250RR MC22. Motorcycles in the small 250cc class are often seen as slow and not particularly thrilling. These are the sorts of motorcycles you buy as a beginner and sell as soon as you’re more confident. Back in Japan in the 1980s, things were different. Larger motorcycles placed more restrictions on riders, so a thriving market of 250cc-class motorcycles existed. Japanese motorcycle manufacturers took their baby bikes and developed them like they were supersports, leading to a quartet of 250s with inline fours revving as high as 19,000 RPM and sounding like a vintage F1 car.
Today, we return back to the world of cars. However, we are sticking with a theme of once forbidden fruit that Americans can now import and enjoy — well, Americans can import this car if they can find one!
This story takes us back to 1980s Europe. Automakers in this era were pumping out a number of vehicles that many might consider legends or icons today. One of Peugeot’s more famed vehicles from this era is the 205 GTi, a car that some regard as one of the best hot hatches of all time. Enthusiasts had the choice to pair their 205 GTis with a 1.6-liter four making 105 HP or a 1.9-liter four making 130 HP. Combine that with a total weight under 2,000 pounds plus a stout chassis and the little Peugeots would be considered relatively hot cars even today. It’s no wonder sites like Autocar will wax poetic about the 205 GTi. Peugeot didn’t stop with the 205 GTi and applied the speedy affordable car formula to other models. The 309 GTi 16 is one of them, but it lives in the shadow cast by the smaller, more popular sibling.
Rootes With Chrysler
In 1958, Chrysler decided to make its mark on the international stage by purchasing a 15 percent stake in French company Simca from Ford. In 1963, Chrysler put more money in, acquiring a total of 63 percent of Simca by buying shares from Fiat. That same year, Chrysler also took 35 percent of Spanish bus, truck, and car manufacturer Barreiros.
Chrysler’s buying spree included the purchase of Greece’s Farco in 1963 and an attempted purchase of an interest in Britain’s Leyland Motors in 1962. Chrysler didn’t get Leyland, but it did score a 30 percent share in Rootes Group (Hillman, Talbot, Sunbeam, and others) in 1964. By 1967, Chrysler’s European division was in full motion as the company purchased the remaining shares of Rootes. Farco, then renamed Chrysler Hellas S.A., ended production, but two years later Chrysler would take control of Barreiros.
In 1970, Rootes was renamed Chrysler UK Limited with Simca becoming Chrysler France. During the existence of Chrysler UK, storied British names such as Hillman, Humber, Singer, and Sunbeam saw their badges phased out and their vehicles called Chryslers. Between vehicles that were long in the tooth and general brand confusion, Chrysler’s European operations struggled to stay viable. In 1978, Chrysler decided to pull the plug, selling off the European division to Peugeot. Now under Peugeot control, some cars that were once branded as Chryslers, Hillmans, and Simcas were renamed to Talbot, a brand that at that time was dead.
The UK branch of Talbot built cars out of its factory in Ryton and at the time, one of the largest sources of revenue was the Hillman Hunter, which was exported to Iran in knock-down kits.
The Peugeot 309 started as Projet C28 as a replacement for the Talbot Horizon, an internationally-sold car offered under a couple of different names. Engineering would be done at Simca’s site in Poissy in France while styling was handled at the Whitley plant in Ryton in the UK.
While a new car, the 309 would employ the Peugeot 205’s floorpan and doors and the drivetrains from the outgoing Horizon. The 309 was actually supposed to be called the Talbot Arizona.
In 1982, the public got to catch what would inspire the Arizona’s design with the Peugeot VERA Plus, an aerodynamic design study that slipped through the air with a coefficient of drag of just 0.22.
There was one problem with calling the new car a Talbot. Interest in Talbot was waning and sales were plummeting. The Talbot Tagora was a sales flop and the Peogeot 205 eclipsed the Peugeot 104-based Talbot Samba. Cars like the 205 made people interested in Peugeot while Talbot was quickly losing momentum. PSA began to reconsider its strategy with Talbot. At the 11th hour, PSA decided to change course with the Arizona.
What would PSA do with the car? Talbot was quickly losing brand equity. At the same time, the car was slightly larger than a Peugeot 205 and a Citroën AX while being smaller than a Peugeot 305 and the Citroën BX. Ultimately, PSA decided to slot the new car between the smaller and larger Peugeots in order to give the brand something to compete against the likes of the Opel Kadett and the Vauxhall Astra. Giving the new car a name was also a challenge. Reportedly, 206 was a consideration, but that didn’t work for Peugeot’s naming convention.
In 1985, PSA announced the end of Talbot as a brand. Later that year, the 309 hit the streets. Here’s what Stellantis says about it today:
Produced between 1985 and 1994 in Poissy, Spain and Great Britain, the PEUGEOT 309 was the first true “compact” car in the modern sense: it was no longer a classic 4-door notchback like the 304 and 305, but a hatchback. With a length of 4.05 m, it is 19 cm more compact than a 305 (4.24 m in its saloon version). Inspired by the Talbot Horizon but with its own style, it borrows the platform and doors of the PEUGEOT 205, with elongated front and rear sections, and a glass bubble that characterises its hatchback.
Launched in a 5-door version, the 309 also came in a 3-door version two years later, in 1987. The 309 GTI, powered by the 1.9 litre 130 hp engine of the 205 GTI, was introduced. The 309 GTI accelerated from 0 to 100 km/h in 8 seconds and reached a top speed of 205 km/h. In 1989, the 309 GTI received the MI16 160 hp engine from the PEUGEOT 405: it became the 309 GTI 16, a formidable compact sports car respected by the competition. The 309’s career ended in 1994. Over 1.6 million units were sold.
The Peugeot 309 was available with a variety of gasoline and diesel engines. Power got as low as 55 HP in base models with the 1,118cc four. At first, the top-of-the-line model was the SR, which made 79 HP from its four-cylinder engine. The SR is notable for its luxury features such as central locking, power windows, velour seat trim, and fiber optics in its dashboard. Options included metallic paint, remote locking, fog lights, a sunroof, and more. This is not our Grail. For Cristi M, there are two Peugeot grails and one of them is the 309 GTi:
Peugeot built the 104 ZS2 for homologation purposes in rallying, yet it is severely under the radar now.
A similar fate has the Peugeot 309GTi. It has the 16v 1.9 like in the bigger 405, but less weight, closer to the 205GTi. The 309GTi is mostly forgotten today.
As our reader and Stellantis note, in 1987 Peugeot released the 309 GTi. Early models of the 309 GTi featured the 1.9-liter four from the 205 GTi. Since the 309 was essentially a bigger 205, what Peugeot really did was create a 205 GTi with more practicality. But that really doesn’t tell the whole story. The 309 GTi had a weight gain of just 44 pounds over the 205 GTi, weighing in at roughly 2,145 pounds. As a result, the bigger, more family-friendly 309 GTi hit 60 mph in 8 seconds, just 0.2 seconds slower than the 205 GTi. Here’s a 205 GTi and a 309 GTi:
Two years later, Peugeot would nab the 1.9-liter engine from the Peugeot 405, creating the 309 GTi 16. With 160 HP on tap, the 309 GTi 16 was now just as fast as the 205 GTi to 60 mph and raced on to a higher top speed of 137 mph. There was also a version of the 309 GTi called the Goodwood. Sold only in the UK and in just 398 copies, the Goodwood edition got a leather interior, a wooden steering wheel and gear knob as well as other cosmetic changes. If the 205 GTi was a hot hatch, the 309 GTi 16 was even hotter. Reportedly, reviews even compared the 309 GTi to the 205 GTi, calling it a version of the hot hatch with greater refinement and more space.
Here’s a quick period review of a Peugeot 309 GTI 16 from MotorSport magazine:
In Britain, the Peugeot 309 GTI is the overlooked big brother of the chic 205 equivalent. Whereas approximately 10,000 205 GTIs are sold a year (of which the 130 bhp 1.9-litre version accounts for over 60%) the 309 GTI struggles to sell 1000 units per annum. Thus when Peugeot France decided to sell a comparatively specialist 16-valve derivative of the 309 in the summer of 1989, Peugeot UK could honestly advise the parent company of the projected poor return for the extensive outlay needed for a RHD derivative. So the 309 avec 16 soupapes remained for French gourmet consumption only.
Donington is not a simple track, even in its shorter guise, but the white 309 made it appear so. Acceleration from the pits was delivered with zest and moderated wheelspin in the lower gears. Once in third it was obvious that the chassis would happily accommodate another 20 bhp, for you only have to acclimatise to the power-steered numbness and occasional front-drive weave during hard cornering before using full throttle for 95 per cent of cornering situations. The only defect seemed to be the way in which the rear brakes would grab, making fast entries to slower corners untidy.
Otherwise the Peugeot was as straightforwardly enjoyable to drive as you would expect from its road cousins. I am only surprised that the British factory does not seem to encourage privateers to run hard alongside the works team, a stark contrast to British rallying, in which Peugeot GTI Club Peugeots often save organisers the embarrassments of spindly entry lists.
And that brings us to rarity. Peugeot sold more than 1.6 million 309s between 1985 and 1994. I couldn’t tell you how many are remaining in the world, but the UK’s fleet can give us a clue about the extinction-level event happening to these poor cars. In 2001, there were roughly 109,000 309s on the road. By 2018, there were roughly 481 of them left. If the number plate tracking site How Many Left is anywhere near correct, there are just 250 309s of all types left in the UK. I won’t go through each version of the 309, but How Many Left notes 37 different combinations of trim level and engine.
If you narrow your search down to just 309 GTis, things get bleak. There are 41 309 GTis currently on the UK’s roads plus another 30 Goodwood editions. If you fancy a 309 GTi with an automatic transmission, there’s just one of them left. To put this into perspective, in 1994, there were 9,395 309 GTis on UK roads. It would seem that unlike the 205 GTi, which has 907 survivors, collectors just aren’t lining up to save the hot version of the 309.
With that said, currently, you can find 65 309 GTis for sale around the world, just three of them of GTi 16 flavor. Sadly, none of them are in America, so you’ll want to contact an importer if you want one. The good news is that you can easily find one for under $20,000, or for roughly the same price as a driver-quality 205 GTi.
So, if you’re looking for a quirky multinational hot hatch, one that will certainly be the only one at a car show, perhaps consider a Peugeot 309 GTi. You won’t stomp any modern car with it, but these sound like plenty ’80s spicy car fun.
Do you know of or own a car, bus, motorcycle, or something else worthy of being called a ‘holy grail’? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or drop it down in the comments!
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